(JTA) — Israel’s new governing coalition has been called the “most right-wing” in the nation’s history. That’s heartening to supporters who want the country to get tough on crime and secure Jewish rights to live in the West Bank, and dismaying to critics who see a government bent on denying rights to Israel’s minorities and undermining any hope for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While the far-right politics of new government ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir have drawn much of the world’s attention, a series of proposed changes to Israel’s judicial system has also been raising hopes and alarms. On Wednesday, new Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced an overhaul that would limit the authority of the High Court of Justice, Israel’s Supreme Court. It would put more politicians on the selection committee that picks judges, restrict the High Court’s ability to strike down laws and government decisions and enact an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to rewrite court decisions with a simple majority.
Levin and his supporters on the right justify these changes as a way to restore balance to a system that he says puts too much control in the hands of (lately) left-leaning judges: “We go to the polls, vote, elect, and time after time, people we didn’t elect choose for us. Many sectors of the public look to the judicial system and do not find their voices heard,” he asserted. “That is not democracy.”
Critics of the changes call them a power grab, one that will hand more leverage to the haredi Orthodox parties, remove checks on the settlement movement and limit civil society groups’ ability to litigate on behalf of Israeli minorities.
To help me make sense of the claims on both sides, I turned to Tom Ginsburg of the University of Chicago, where he is the Leo Spitz Distinguished Service Professor of International Law and co-directs the Comparative Constitutions Project, which gathers and analyzes the constitutions of all independent nation-states. He’s also a Jew who has transformed a former synagogue on the South Side of Chicago into a cutting-edge arts space, and says what’s happening with Israel’s new governing coalition “raises my complicated relationship with the country.”
We spoke on Friday. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency: You have written about law in Israel, which lacks a constitution but relies on a series of “basic laws” to define its fundamental institutions. You’ve written that the Israeli judiciary had become “extremely powerful” — maybe too powerful — in imbuing the basic laws with a constitutional character, but worry that the current reforms will politicize the court in ways that will undermine Israeli democracy.
Tom Ginsburg: The proposed reforms were a campaign promise of certain elements of this coalition who have had longstanding grievances against the Israeli judiciary. The Israeli judiciary over the last decades has indeed become extremely powerful and important in writing or rewriting a constitution for Israel, promoting human rights and serving as a check and balance in a unicameral parliamentary system where the legislature can do anything it wants as a formal matter. A lot of people have had problems with that at the level of theory and practice. So there have been some reforms, and the court has, in my view, cut back on its activism in recent decades and in some sense has been more responsive to the center of the country. But there’s longstanding grievances from the political right, and that’s the context of these proposals.
A lot of the concerns about the new government in Israel are coming from the American Jewish left. But in an American context, the American Jewish left also has a big problem with the United States Supreme Court, because they see it as being too activist on the right. So in some ways isn’t the new Israeli government looking to do what American Jewish liberals dream of doing in this country?
Isn’t that funny? But the context is really different. The basic point is that judicial independence is a really good thing. Judicial accountability is a really good thing. And if you study high courts around the world, as I do, you see that there’s kind of a calibration, a balancing of institutional factors which lead towards more independence or more accountability and sometimes things switch around over time.
You mean “accountability” in the sense that courts should be accountable to the public.
Right. The Israeli promoters of these plans are pointing to the United States, in particular, for the proposals for more political involvement in the appointment process. On the other hand, in the United States once you’re appointed politically, you’re serving for life. There’s literally no check on your power. And so maybe some people think we have too much independence. If these proposals go through in Israel, there will be a front-end politicization of the court [in terms of the selection commission], but also back-end checks on the court [with the override clause that would allow a simple majority to reinstate laws struck down by the Supreme Court]. So in some sense, it moves the pendulum very far away from independence and very much towards accountability to the point of possible politicization.
And accountability in that case is too much of a good thing.
Again, you don’t want courts that can just make up rules. They should be responsive to society. On the other hand, you don’t want judges who are so responsive to society that there’s no protection for the basic rights of unpopular minorities.
What makes Israel either unique or different from some of the other countries you study, and certainly the United States? Part of it, I would guess, is the fact that it does not have a constitution. Is that a useful distinction?
They couldn’t agree on a single written constitution at the outset of the country, but they have built one through what you might call a “common law method”: norms and practices over time as well as the system of “basic laws,” which are passed by an absolute majority of the Knesset, where a majority of 61 votes can change any of those. But while they’re not formally entrenched, they have a kind of political status because of that term: basic law.
By the way, the Germans are in the same boat. The German constitution is called the Basic Law. And it was always meant to be a provisional constitution until they got together and reunified.
If you don’t have a written constitution, what’s the source of the legitimacy of judicial power? What is to prevent a Knesset from just passing literally any law, including ones that violate all kinds of rights, or installing a dictator? It has been political norms. And because Israel has relied on political norms, that means that this current conflict is going to have extremely high stakes for Israeli governance for many decades to come.
Can you give me a couple of examples? What are the high stakes in terms of democratic governance?
First of all, let me just say in principle that I don’t oppose reforms to make the judiciary more independent or accountable in any particular country. But then you obviously have to look at the local context. What’s a little worrying about this particular example is that several members of this coalition are themselves about to be subject to judicial proceedings.
Including the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Right. And for example, they need to change the rules so that [Shas Party chairman] Aryeh Deri can sit in the cabinet despite his prior convictions. That indicates to me that maybe this isn’t a good-faith argument about the proper structure of the Israeli, uncodified constitution, but instead a mechanism of expediency.
Any one of these reforms might look okay, and you can find other countries that have done them. The combination, however, renders the judiciary extremely weak. Right now, it’s a multi-stakeholder commission that nominates and appoints judges in Israel, and the new coalition wants to propose that the commission be made up of a majority of politicians. We know that when you change the appointments mechanism to put more politicians on those committees, the more politicized they become.
Think about the United States process of appointing our Supreme Court judges: It’s highly politicized, and obviously the legitimacy of the court has taken a big hit in recent years. In Israel, you’d have politicized appointments under these reforms, but then you also have the ability of the Knesset to override any particular ruling that it wanted. Again, you can find countries which have that. It’s called the “new commonwealth model” of constitutionalism, in which courts don’t have the final say on constitutional matters, and the legislature can overrule them on particular rulings. But I think the combination is very dangerous because you could have a situation where the Knesset — which currently has a role in protecting human rights — can pick out and override specific cases, which really to me goes against the idea of the rule of law.
You mentioned other countries. Are there other countries where these kinds of changes were enacted and we saw how the experiment turned out?
The two most prominent recently are Hungary and Poland, which are not necessarily countries that you want to compare yourself to.
Certainly not if you are Israel.
Right. There’s so much irony here. When the new Polish government came in in 2015, they immediately manipulated the appointment system for the Constitutional Court and appointed their own majority, which then allowed them to pass legislation which probably would have been ruled unconstitutional. They basically set up a system where they were going to replace lower judges and so they were going to grow themselves into a majority of the court. And that’s led to controversy and rulings outside the mainstream that have led to protests, while the European Union is withholding funds and such from Poland because of this manipulation of the court.
In Hungary, Victor Orban was a really radical leader, and when he had a bare majority to change the constitution he wiped out all the previous jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court. I don’t think the Israeli government would do that. But still there is this kind of worrying sense that they’re able to manipulate interpretation of law for their own particular political interest.
Another thing I want to raise is the potential for a constitutional crisis now. Suppose they pass these laws and the Israeli Supreme Court says, “Well, wait a minute, that interferes with our common law rules that we are bound by, going back to the British Mandate.” It conflicts with the basic law and they invoke what legal scholars call the “doctrine of unconstitutional constitutional amendments,” which is basically saying that an amendment goes against the core of our democratic system and violates, for example, Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic society. Israel has never done this, but it is a kind of tool that one sees deployed around the world in these crises. And if that happened, then I think you would have a full constitutional crisis on your hands in Israel.
What does a constitutional crisis look like?
Suppose you have sitting justices in Israel who say, “You know, this Knesset law violates the basic law and therefore it’s invalid.” And then, would the Knesset try to impeach those judges? Would they cut the budget of the judiciary? Would they back down?
When you compare Israel’s judicial system to other countries’ over the years, how does it stack up? Is it up there among the very strong systems or is it known for flaws that might have maybe hobbled its effectiveness?
It’s always been seen around the world as a very strong judiciary. Under the leadership of Aharon Barak [president of Israel’s Supreme Court from 1995 to 2006] it became extremely activist. And this provoked backlash in Israeli politics. That led to a kind of recalibration of the court where it is still doing its traditional role of defending fundamental rights and ensuring the integrity of the political process, but it’s not making up norms left and right, in the way that it used to. This is my perception. But it’s certainly seen as one of the leading courts around the world, its decisions are cited by others, and because of the quality of the judges and the complex issues that Israel faces it’s seen as a strong court and an effective court and to me a balanced court.
But, you know, I’m not in Israel, and ultimately, they’re going to figure out the question how balanced it is or where it’s going to go. I do worry that an unchecked majoritarian system, especially with a pure proportional representation model like Israel, has the potential for the capture of government by some minorities to wield power against other minorities. And that’s a problem for democracies — to some degree, that’s a problem we face in the United States.
How correctable are these reforms? I am thinking of someone who says, “These are democratically elected representatives who now want to change a system. If you want to change the system, elect your own majority.” Is the ship of state like this really hard to turn around once you go in a certain direction?
This is an area in which I think Israel and the United States have a lot of similarities. For several decades now, the judiciary has been a major issue for those on the political right. They thought the Warren Court was too left-leaning and they started the Federalist Society to create a whole cadre of people to staff the courts. They’ve done that and now the federal courts are certainly much more conservative than the country probably. But the left didn’t really have a theory of judicial power in the United States. And I think that’s kind of true in Israel: It’s a big issue for the political right, but the political left, besides just being not very cohesive at the moment, isn’t able to articulate what’s good about having an independent judiciary. It is correctable in theory, but that would require the rule of law to become a politically salient issue, which it generally isn’t in that many countries.
How do you relate to what is happening in Israel as a Jew, and not just a legal scholar?
That’s a great question, because it really raises my complicated relationship with the country. You know, I find it to be a very interesting democracy. I like going to Israel because it’s a society in which there’s a lot of argument, a lot of good court cases and a lot of good legal scholars. On one level, I connect with my colleagues and friends there who seem very demoralized about this current moment. And I honestly worry about whether this society will remain a Jewish and democratic one with the current coalition.
The rule of law is a part of democracy. You need the rule of law in order to have democracy function. And I know others would respond and say, “Oh, you’re just being hysterical.” And, “This isn’t Sweden, it’s the Middle East.” But the ethno-nationalist direction of the country bothers me as a Jew, and I hope that the court remains there to prevent it from deepening further.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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